The authority of the National Security Agency (NSA) and other agencies to collect bulk phone records and other information from Americans expired at midnight on Sunday after the US Senate failed to extend three expiring provisions of the The Patriot Act in an extraordinary session thanks to GOP Senator Rand Paul’s fierce struggle against government surveillance.
However, the powers bestowed upon US intelligence agencies post-Sept 11 may take on a new form.
After the Patriot Act extension was rejected by the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had no option but to embrace a House-passed bill that would reform the USA Patriot Act – known as the USA Freedom Act.
The USA Freedom Act was a compromise that would end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial bulk collection of telephone metadata. It would instead allow phone records to be collected by carriers and accessed by the government on a case-by-case basis pending court approval.
The USA Freedom Act was passed by the House 338-88 earlier in May with bipartisan support, but failed in the Senate 57-42 just three shy of the 60-vote threshold last week, despite efforts by the White House to convince senators.
After the US Senate agreed to consider the USA Freedom Act with a 77-17 vote last night, the final vote for the Senate passage of the legislation was postponed by Sen. Paul’s objections until at least Tuesday.
"This bill will ultimately pass," Paul acknowledged after the vote.
Calling the USA Freedom Act “the only realistic way forward,” McConnell said, "It's not ideal but, along with votes on some modest amendments that attempt to ensure the program can actually work as promised."
Should the USA Freedom Act be amended by the Senate, it will have to go back to the House of Representatives to be voted on again.
While civil liberties groups applaud Paul’s actions, they argue that the USA Freedom Act is insufficient for protecting privacy.
“Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration,” Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the Washington American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
Critics of Paul claim that he is playing politics with the issue opportunistically to benefit his presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, the White House seems to be happy with the outcome.
“The Senate took an important - if late - step forward tonight,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest, said.
“We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible."